If you've ever asked a 5-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up, you'll probably recognize a theme. Astronaut, dancer, poet, princess, unicorn trainer — whatever the answer, it usually sounds like a lot of fun.
Fifteen or 20 years later, that sense of fun will likely be trumped by a sense of financial responsibility. It's almost a rite of passage to give up the idea that a grown-up job can be fun. But fun and money aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.
While it's true that many of the highest paying jobs are not what most people would call fun, there are also some very lucrative careers that seem like such fun it's hard to believe people get paid to do them. Think of Jimmy Fallon, for example, who reportedly makes $12 million per year hosting "The Tonight Show" and seems to be having so much fun he'd do it for free — almost [source: Longman].
To be sure, even in the entertainment industry, Fallon is an anomaly. The average member of the Screen Actors Guild makes $52,000 a year, and most actors bring in less than $1,000 for their efforts — if they can find work [source: The Hollywood Reporter]. The jobs in which workers claim to be happiest are far less glamorous, but most pay a decent wage. There are also plenty of jobs that pay next to nothing and are a real drag. And even jobs that once seemed like a lot of fun, once you're in them long enough, can start to feel like work.
Read on to find out more about the highest and lowest paying jobs in America, and discover what makes a job fun.
Highest and Lowest Paying Jobs in the U.S.
If you think the jobs that pay the most are also the most fun, perhaps you should talk to someone in one of those professions. You might find the opposite is true. Take a look at a 2014 list of the median salaries for some of the highest paying jobs in the U.S. [source: CareerCast]:
- Surgeon — $233,150
- General practice physician — $187,200
- Psychiatrist — $178,950
- Orthodontist — $149,310
- Dentist — $146,340
- Petroleum engineer — $130,280
- Air Traffic Controller — $122,530
- Pharmacist — $116,670
- Podiatrist — $116,440
- Attorney — $113,530
Beyond fat paychecks, the thing many of these professions have in common is general job dissatisfaction. Surgeons, general practitioners and podiatrists might rank well here, but surveys find that only a small minority of doctors feel positive about their jobs [source: Jauhar]. Even worse, dentists and attorneys are said to have the highest rates of suicide and depression [source: Tuttle and Davidson]. And air traffic controllers' jobs have been called one of the most stressful careers around, alongside miner and police officer [source: Montgomery].
The other thing that the highest paying jobs in the country have in common is the amount of work involved in getting one. The majority of these positions require a secondary degree, and some also involve extensive internships or residencies. This can mean taking on massive student loan debt in the process, which can impact not only finances but also one's physical well-being [source: Dugan and Kafka].
On the flip side, a list of the lowest paying jobs — all but one of which pay less than $20,000 per year — doesn't seem like much fun either [source: Tahmincioglu]:
- Fast Food/Food Preparation — $18,000
- Dishwasher — $18,000-$23,000
- Cashier — $19,000
- Host and Hostess — $19,000
- Amusement Park Worker — $19,500
- Movie Theater Usher — $19,600
- Farm Worker — $19,700
- Personal Healthcare Aid — $20,300
You would think that amusement park workers would be having at least some fun. But many workers at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for example, say they're hungry, homeless and miserable, living below the poverty line and barely able to eke out an existence working for the happiest place on Earth [source: Olorunnipa].
How much can you make doing fun jobs?
Somewhere in between the highest and lowest paid professions, there are jobs that just might meet the approval of your inner 5-year-old. Here's a look at how much you can expect to earn doing fun jobs:
Video Game Developer — Your mother might have told you there was nothing to learn playing video games, but tell that to the folks who make them. More than 42,000 people in 36 states and Puerto Rico are employed by the booming U.S. video game industry. Employment is up 30 percent since 2009, and the pace is more than 13 times faster than the rest of the labor market. For those keeping score, the average annual compensation in this industry is $95,000 [source: Siwek].
Winemaker/Wine Sales — Lovers of the grape might want to consider a job in the growing U.S. wine industry, which at last count employed 34,500 people on nearly 16,000 vineyards across the country [source: Hodgen]. Winemakers earn a median salary of nearly $54,000 each year, and wine sales managers take home a median salary of more than $84,000 [source: Payscale.com].
Graphic Designer/Illustrator — Who said doodling can't lead anywhere? The field of graphic design employs about 260,000 people at a median salary of more than $44,000 per year. The top 10 percent of designers earn more than $77,000 per year. About a quarter of people working in graphic design are self-employed [source: BLS].
Astronomer — Stargazing types could potentially make good money figuring out the nature of the universe. As of 2012, astronomers and physicists earned a median income of $106,000 per year. But keep in mind, you'll need some heavy-duty schooling. Most of the 23,000-plus jobs in the field require a master's degree or PhD, although a bachelor's can qualify you for an assistant position in a lab. With steady growth projected in the field, the sky is the limit [source: BLS].
Robotics/Computer and Information Research — If you've always been a tinkerer or computer lover, there's potential to have a lot of fun building models or even robots in a computer research lab. There are more than 26,700 computer and information research scientists, and the field is growing at a faster-than-average rate compared to other professions — so fast, the government projects will have more jobs than capable workers in the next 10 years. Folks in this profession do everything from data mining and modeling to programming to actually designing and testing robots. Industry data from 2012 shows these workers earning a median income of $102,000 a year [source: BLS]. Robotics innovators like Colin Angle, Helen Greiner and Rodney Brooks, the founders of iRobot, have made much more than that [source: iRobot.com]. Their company is now worth more than $1 billion thanks to inventions like the Roomba vacuum cleaner [source: Yahoo Finance].
Fashion Designer — Whether you're known for your personal style or are just really good with a sewing machine, you don't need a spot on "Project Runway" to attain a career in fashion. As of 2012, there were 22,300 designer jobs in the fashion industry, so even if you don't launch your own line, you could help create the clothing sold under big-name brands. Fashion designers in 2012 earned a median income of nearly $63,000 per year [source: BLS].
Dancer/Choreographer — Believe it or not, nearly 26,000 people in the U.S. work as dancers and choreographers, with projected employment growth of 6 percent for dancers and 24 percent for choreographers between 2012 and 2022. If you have the coordination you might find a job doing what you love, but unless you become a regular on "Dancing With the Stars," don't expect big bucks. Dancers earn a median hourly rate of $14.16, with choreographers pulling in a median hourly rate of $18.33. The bottom 10 percent earn a median $8.50 per hour, whereas the top 10 percent earn more than $33 per hour [source: BLS].
Veterinarian/Veterinary Technician — If you love animals or simply have no patience for human patients, veterinary medicine requires less schooling (and less student loan debt) than it takes to become a regular physician. And pet owners will always be happy to see you. The more than 70,000 vets in the country earn a median income of about $85,000 [source: BLS]. Or you could become a vet technician; the position requires a basic level of education, is growing much faster than other professions and pays a median amount of more than $30,000 per year [source: BLS].
Dog Walker — Some folks just love dogs. If that describes you, a dog-walking business can be surprisingly fun and lucrative, and you can get started with little or no overhead. The stats for this industry are unclear, but in some areas of the country people pay anywhere from $10 to $30 an hour for dog-walking services. If you can take care of five dogs at a time, that's $50 to $150 an hour. There's plenty of potential to rake in serious money while raking up, ahem, other things [source: Dogwalker.com].
Poet/Writer — Unless you can put your words to music, you might never make a living as a poet. Among the three best-selling poetry books of 2011, one brought in just over $44,000, and the other two made closer to $5,000 [source: Friedman]. However, you might be able to make money as a writer. While jobs for writers are growing at a slower-than-average rate, the more than 129,000 members of the profession earn nearly $56,000 a year on average [source: BLS]. Keep in mind, this profession is a diverse group, which includes the likes of standouts such as billionaire author J.K. Rowling, who earned $14 million in 2014 from the "Harry Potter" series [source: Forbes], and blogger Pete Cashmore, who founded the website Mashable at age 19 and is said to earn more than $7 million per year [source: Mikelon].
What makes a job fun anyway?
The happiest professionals are not necessarily those making the most money or doing jobs that always bring to mind the word "fun."
Database administrators, said to be happiest in their jobs in 2014, earn $79,000 on average. Executive and administrative assistants, who provide research and clerical support to others, both make the list with average salaries between $33,500 and $50,000. Insurance underwriters happily earn $69,000 on average. Even executive recruiters, the types that find good jobs for others, rank among the happiest and can earn between $50,000 and $104,000 [source: Adams].
If it's not the title or the salary that matter, what exactly makes a job fun? It's the little things, according to psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. For instance, people who feel good about what they're doing, who like their coworkers, and who feel they have a say are more upbeat and creative than others. They're more likely to be having fun at work.
Having fun at work may not always lead to higher pay for employees, but it does pay off for employers. The question of what makes a workplace fun seems to matter more to companies than ever before. Because happy employees are said to be more loyal and productive, fun has become a corporate culture movement.
Zappos is led by a CEO who is also a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer), while Google employs someone with the official title of Jolly Good Fellow [source: Kovensky]. Searches on job sites Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com yield positions for Fun Officers and Chief Fun Officers, and employees at eyeglass retailer Warby Parker are asked each week to rate their level of happiness [source: Burkeman]. Having fun, it seems, is a lot of work.
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